Monday, November 10, 2014

Double Take: Fantastic Voyage/Innerspace

Fantastic Voyage (1966) Directed by: Richard Fleischer; Written by Harry Kleiner; Story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby; Adapted by David Duncan; Starring: Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Edmond O'Brien and Donald Pleasence

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: ****

Innerspace (1987) Directed by: Joe Dante; Written by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser; Story by Chip Proser; Starring: Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Vernon Wells and Fiona Lewis

Available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Rating: ****

“Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought…” – Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy)

“…we actually watched the picture (Fantastic Voyage) and tried to not do some of the things that they had done simply because there were things that worked and things that didn’t work, and we didn’t want to put people on wires…”  – Joe Dante (from DVD commentary for Innerspace)

Despite the fact that the entirety of my post-secondary education was in the liberal arts, I’ve always been a great admirer of the sciences and, by extension, science fiction. During my formative years, I grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi movies and television, and devoured many stories from speculative fiction writers such as Asimov, Clarke and Niven. I always found movies and stories grounded in the real world to be a bit mundane, and was more interested in what could (or couldn’t) be, rather than what was. One such movie that had an indelible effect was Fantastic Voyage, which aired with some regularity on ‘70s TV. I’d catch it whenever it was on, despite my father’s protestations that “that’s a rerun.” It never failed to send my mind reeling, transporting me to another place, a familiar yet alien landscape. Twenty odd years later, Joe Dante revisited that landscape and re-captured my imagination with his comedic take on the source material, Innerspace.

Both films cover a similar conceit, that people could be miniaturized to explore the oceans of the human body, but they represent completely different approaches. In the original film, the sense of urgency is more palpable, because the miniaturization process only lasts 60 minutes. We feel tension as the crew members of the submersible Proteus* race against the clock to perform a surgical procedure from within the human brain. Although no such time limit is expressly stated in Innerspace, we know the protagonist’s time is finite, due to the oxygen reserves in his mini-sub.

* It’s no surprise that Fantastic Voyage’s director Richard Fleischer helmed another childhood favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both classic flicks featured iconic submarine designs by Harper Goff. 

* Bonus Factoid: The effects for Fantastic Voyage required several models of the Proteus, from 1- ½ inches to full size. The smallest model met an unfortunate end when it was carried off by a bird during an outdoor test shoot.

Both films inspire a sense of wonder, relying on extensive special effects and inspired art direction to drive the story. While Fantastic Voyage shows its age, it featured groundbreaking (for the time) visuals. The Dale Hennesy-designed sets painted a surreal landscape, which afforded ‘60s audiences an unprecedented, albeit fanciful view of the inner workings of the human body.  The special effects in Innerspace still hold up remarkably well, thanks to the gooey, three-dimensional creations of Dennis Muren and his team. Compared to the original film, everything looks more organic, less stylized. On the other hand, he attempted to achieve a balance, to avoid things from getting “too grotesque.”

Aside from Hennesy’s contributions, the distinctive look of Fantastic Voyage’s space-age facilities can also be attributed to Jack Martin Smith, who lent his high tech (at least by ‘60s standards) look to such 20th Century Fox productions as Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Batman. For Innerspace, Dante and his team made a deliberate choice to create a more functional, low-tech appearance, or in Muren’s words (from the DVD commentary), “something that was not quite as Hollywood looking.” To lend a bit more veracity to the slap-dash research facility set, Dante used real-life Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists as extras. The villains’ laboratory, with its white, sterile look, however, seems more consistent with the facility in the original picture.

Apart from the aesthetic choices, both films were thematically divergent, with each reflecting a different era. Fantastic Voyage is a product of the Cold War era, played straight, with its idealistic view of science, views of right and wrong, and “free world” versus communism. Innerspace takes a more cynical stance, and the story is played for laughs. The enemy isn’t communism, but corporate America and capitalism, where closely guarded secrets are sold out to the highest bidder.

Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace feature impressive casts. In the former film, the characters are designed mainly to drive the plot along. Veteran actors Arthur Kennedy, Arthur O’Connell and Edmond O’Brien lend the film gravitas, while Donald Pleasence is engaging as the shifty Dr. Michaels. Raquel Welch* also appears in an early role as Dr. Duval’s plucky assistant Cora. By contrast, Innerspace is much more character-driven, populated by the usual assortment of oddballs that typify Dante’s movies. Dennis Quaid is amusing as the brash, irreverent Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton and Martin Short** (in one of his best film roles) is afforded a rare opportunity to shine as neurotic hero Jack Putter. Kevin McCarthy plays unscrupulous businessman Victor Scrimshaw, who attempts to possess the key to miniaturization. Innerspace also showcases small but fun roles by Dante regulars Dick Miller as a chatty cabdriver, William Schallert* as Jack’s doctor, and  Robert Picardo as the enigmatic arms dealer, The Cowboy.

* Hennesy’s imaginative sets notwithstanding, I’d wager an entire generation of adolescent males learned about human anatomy from a scene in which the other actors pulled off crystalized antibodies that were affixed to Ms. Welch’s wetsuit.

** Watch for a brief scene where Short is joined by fellow SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin.

*** As an inside joke, Dante cast Mr. Schallert, who appeared many years before as the physician in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Over the past several years various filmmakers, including James Cameron and Roland Emmerich, have been attached to a proposed remake of Fantastic Voyage, but not much has moved forward.  A remake would most likely employ gobs of computer-generated effects in 3D, but the most intriguing aspect would be the opportunity to take the material in an entirely different direction. Perhaps one solution could be to go with a retro,* rather than futuristic setting. Another approach might be to reflect current advances in nanotechnology, which would obviate the necessity to shrink anyone, but where’s the fun in that? It’s certainly not as romantic a notion as shrinking people. Personally, I’d rather stick with Innerspace, which remains a perfect counterpoint to the original film. Both films possess the charm of good, old-fashioned pre-CGI practical effects, and whether you’re looking for post-war optimism or post-modern cynicism, you can’t go wrong.  

* According to Jeff Bond, who provided the Fantastic Voyage DVD commentary, the original film concept involved a Jules Verne-inspired adventure, set in the early 1900s. I must confess, the idea of a steampunk re-imagining has some merit.


  1. Great body movie mash up, Barry. I think I prefer Fantastic Voyage for the kitsch and the cast. Innerspace has its moments, but Fantastic Voyage for the win!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Brandon! I love both films, but for different reasons. Fantastic Voyage holds a special place in my heart for the reasons you described, but I enjoy Innerspace for its comic spin on the material - one of Joe Dante's best.